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  • Melanie Roussel

Death - CATS ARE NICE

When one of the most beloved characters in a franchise is the personification of Death, you know you're talking about the works of Pratchett or Gaiman.

Death appears in every Discworld book with the exception of The Wee Free Men. That's forty books. As you would expect, Death is your classic Grim Reaper trope, a skeleton wearing a black robe holding a scythe. He speaks in a deep, hollow force and on the page his dialogue always appears in CAPITAL LETTERS. He's eternal, unemotional and cannot be bargained with.

Oh, and he loves cats and rides a white horse called BINKY.

Discworld's Death

IT IS THE THINGS YOU BELIEVE WHICH MAKE YOU HUMAN. GOOD THINGS AND BAD THINGS, IT’S ALL THE SAME. Hogfather, Terry Pratchett

Actually, having said he's unemotional, he's really nothing of the sort. While he protests at having an entirely dispassionate view, he's actually shown to be kind, curious and deeply loyal. His function in many of Pratchett's book is as a lens on humanity.

Death function is often as a lens on humanity, with which he is obviously fascinated. This fascination leads him to step in when the Hogfather (Discworld's Father Christmas) goes missing. He adopts Ysabell, an orphan girl, as his daughter. And after she runs off with his apprentice Mort (long story) he ends up with a granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit. I'm planning on covering her in a later post, so I won't say much here other than he is shown to deeply care for Susan, in his way.

There is so much more I could go into here, including Death's groundsman Albert and the Death of Rats (SQUEAK) but I simply don't have the time!

Near-Death Experience

YOU SEE, YOU ARE HAVING A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE, WHICH INESCAPABLY MEANS THAT I MUST HAVE A NEAR-VIMES EXPERIENCE. DON’T MIND ME. CARRY ON WITH WHATEVER YOU WERE DOING. I HAVE A BOOK. Thud, Terry Pratchett

It should be pointed out that Death in the Discworld is not invisible. It's just that most people refuse to acknowledge him until they have to. The Wizards of the Discworld can see him and the wizzard Rincewind spends most of his time running from him (though he runs from pretty much everything).

However, it's perhaps Commander Vimes which has some of the best near-death experiences in the series. In both The Fifth Elephant and in Thud, he's shown to have a mildly continuous relationship with Death when he is able to see him.

GOOD MORNING. Vimes blinked. A tall dark-robed figure was now sitting in the boat. "Are you Death?" IT’S THE SCYTHE, ISN’T IT? PEOPLE ALWAYS NOTICE THE SCYTHE. "I’m going to die?" POSSIBLY. "Possibly? You turn up when people are possibly going to die?" OH, YES. IT'S QUITE THE NEW THING. IT’S BECAUSE OF THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE. "What’s that?" I’M NOT SURE. "That’s very helpful." I THINK IT MEANS PEOPLE MAY OR MAY NOT DIE. I HAVE TO SAY IT’S PLAYING HOB WITH MY SCHEDULE, BUT I TRY TO KEEP UP WITH MODERN THOUGHT. The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett

The Comic Relief

Outside of Death's own books (Mort, Reaper Man, Hogfather, Soul Music and Thief of Time) his small appearances are used in a very poignant way, really digging in the pathos of a death. Or, more often, done for comic relief.

For example, in the Vimes lead Night Watch, there's a scene were Vimes comes across victims of torture at the hands of a Gestapo-like regime. It's probably one of the most uncomfortable and dark scenes in the Discworld novels.

However, in the middle of this disturbing scene, we have this exchange.

Who really knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men? ME. Who knew what sane men were capable of? STILL ME, I’M AFRAID. Vimes glanced at the door of the last room. No, he wasn’t going in there again. No wonder it stank here. YOU CAN’T HEAR ME, CAN YOU? OH. I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT, said Death, and went back to waiting. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett

It's funny, it lightens the scene. Until you realise how bad things must be for the appearance of Death to be comic relief.

Weird Fact

Just out of interest, here's something I learnt while hanging out on the Discworld wiki.

In the French translation, though the noun for death (la mort) is feminine, the actual gender when conjugating is masculine. The translator, Patrick Couton, justified the fact by a pun in a footnote: "La Mort est un mâle, car c'est un mal nécessaire" (Death is male because it is a necessary evil/male). In French: mâle = male and mal = evil are pronounced almost identically. The translator footnote has become a running gag in the French translation, "Death is male because there are horseman and no horsewoman of the apocalypse". Fandom, Wiki

The more you know!

Final Thoughts

When I die, it's this Death I'm hoping will be coming for me and I hope came for those before me. He seems to me to be the most kindness and honourable of the options popular culture has given us. He's also the Death Terry Pratchett chose for himself as his passing was announced as below on Twitter.

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